Olivia Steele's Aphorisms Are Printed On Street Signs in Tulum

The artist's Public Display of Awareness (PDA) installations are now one of Tulum’s most iconic features.

WORDS Diana Spechler
March 2020
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Courtesy of Olivia Steele

Instead of “stop” and “wrong way” the street signs of Tulum, Mexico, might read “Pace yourself,” “You are your only limit,” or “Embrace the mystery.” The official-looking signs are the work of artist Olivia Steele, who erected 21 of them in the chic, tropical resort village between 2015 and 2018. She calls the installation, for which she received no compensation or even permission, Public Display of Awareness (PDA), and they’re now one of Tulum’s most iconic features.

A Nashville native, Steele drifted to Tulum six years ago while grieving her father’s sudden death and an ensuing fallout with her mother. “These were messages for me,” Steele says about PDA. “I have a bad memory, so I surround myself with reminders. I have reminders on my phone, on my hand.”

Steele had always used messaging in her art, but before PDA, she had worked only with neon, bending glass with fire to replicate her own handwriting. Some of her neon work hangs in private residences and hotels around Tulum, including an “I often think of you” piece at beachfront boutique hotel Mi Amor. Because the town’s electricity is unreliable, Steele started producing in a different medium, collaborating with traffic sign manufacturers who printed her words on reflective vinyl over aluminum. Steele, who has now installed her signs all over the world, hopes that the personal reminders that inspire her will help everyone who passes them.

The aphorism she adds at the end of our interview sounds like it might be her next work: “Only you can heal yourself.”

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